Should prairie potholes and other wet areas be farmed?

If you farm in the Des Moines Lobe, you know a thing or two about growing corn and soybeans in prairie potholes. They don’t usually yield as much as other parts of your field and they can often cause planting to be delayed in the spring. Perhaps it is time to consider a more economical and environmental land use for those areas.

Prairie potholes account for approximately 3.5 million acres (44%) of the Des Moines Lobe landform. These soils were naturally wetland soils until intensive agriculture and artificial drainage came into being. Most farmers know these potholes are not holes with clear boundaries. Sometime they can be found in upland locations and other times as riparian wetlands.

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Capture2Through artificial drainage, these soils have become part of the row crop systems common across Iowa. In dry years, even when tiled, these areas are the most productive soils. More often than not, in normal to wet years these areas struggle to be profitable. These soils have poor natural drainage and shallow water tables that limit root growth that makes for a poor productivity soil environment due to seedling diseases, root rots, and poor nutrient uptake.

With that background let’s go back to the title; should prairie potholes and other wet areas be farmed? Even with tile drainage systems, these field areas pull down field average yields more years than not. This question is just as much about the social and economic aspects as it is about productivity. It should be hard to justify high corn and soybean costs of production when the return on investment in those areas is negative 50 to 80 percent of the time. There is an opportunity of land use change in these soils and field areas to minimize nutrient loss, increase wildlife habitat, and provide ecosystems services.

GraphicI truly recognize that ease of farming could be impacted and farming around small areas may not be feasible. I also recognize that this takes a commitment of both the tenant and landowner. Despite the challenges, the benefits are many: higher overall profit margins, reduced nutrient loss, and recreational opportunities through increased wildlife habitat.

Mark Licht

Mark Licht is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Assistant Professor and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist at Iowa State University.

Who Doesn’t Want to See More Cattle on the Rolling Green Pastures of Iowa?

I have a soft spot for beef cattle. I mean, who doesn’t like to see cattle on rolling green fields on a beautiful Iowa summer day? While this pastoral scene can bring tranquility and enjoyment, returning more land to grazing has water quality benefits and social benefits.

gilmorecity1As you know, I spend most my time thinking or talking about the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS). Most of my presentations are on edge-of-field nitrate reduction practices. My job is to study specific engineering solutions to our water resource issues. Perhaps not all of our problems can be solved through engineering? Radical thought.

When you really look at our nutrient loss issues, the most important factor affecting nutrient loss is that today there are primarily annual row crops where once there was perennial vegetation pre-settlement or diverse crop rotations during the early 1900’s.

These cropping systems have made Iowa an agricultural leader. We are unlikely to see major land use changes in the near future, but I do think there is potential for more
diverse land uses, especially in certain areas in Iowa. One way to diversify would be an March_img_4373increase in pasture and hay land. For this to work, we would need more cattle to forage.

The Iowa NRS Nonpoint Source Science Assessment estimated that grazed pastureland had 85% nitrate-N reduction and 59% P reduction compared to an annual corn-soybean system. Another added value of having greater need for forage by cattle might be that this could greatly improve the potential economics of cover crops. Late fall and early spring grazing could provide some of the forage needs for the cattle.

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The infrastructure to increase beef cattle on pasture is not what it once was. We have taken out miles of fence throughout the state and there are substantial labor needs for an integrated livestock-cropping system. On the other hand, adding some diversity to agricultural operations could open up opportunities for young farmers to get back on the landscape.

DSCN0318As we move forward with implementation of nutrient reduction practices, it is important to think about our livestock system and how we might be able to increase the number of cattle on pasture in Iowa. Not only could this benefit our environment and maybe provide more opportunities for young people to get into agriculture, it could also add substantial beauty to our landscape with cattle grazing green pastures.

Matt Helmers

To explore the benefits of pasture-based livestock operations, check out Dr. Helmers’ Conservation Chat or Leopold Center Dr. Mark Rasmussen’s Conservation Chat. Matt Helmers is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University.